METAIRIE, La. -- How did Sean Payton’s 2012 suspension turn into a Netflix comedy film produced by Adam Sandler and starring Kevin James as the New Orleans Saints’ former coach?
It was a family affair -- which is fitting, considering the movie “Home Team,” released Friday, is based on how meaningful it was for Payton to spend time coaching his son Connor’s sixth-grade football team that year.
“He said it was the greatest season of coaching in his career -- and he won a Super Bowl,” James told ABC’s Good Morning America, though he later joked on the Rich Eisen Show that Payton was clearly lying and the Super Bowl had to rank first.
The idea for the movie started when Payton’s daughter, Meghan, produced a story about that sixth-grade team for the NFL Network. Meghan’s longtime boyfriend, Christopher Titone, is Sandler’s brother-in-law and has worked for Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions for more than a decade.
Titone and writing partner Keith Blum had written two previous scripts that didn’t get produced into movies. But when Titone texted Meghan’s video to Sandler, Sandler quickly replied, “Write that movie.”
Titone, of course, loved the idea. But he also checked to make sure Payton was on board.
“He said, ‘If Adam Sandler told me to write something, I’d grab the nearest pen,’” Titone said. “I still have the text.”
Titone said he and Blum always stressed the importance of keeping the true story of Payton’s suspension stemming from the NFL’s bounty investigation -- where the Saints were found to have operated a bounty system in which players were paid bonuses for, among other things, hard hits and deliberately injuring opposing players -- as the “foundation.” They kept all the real names and authentic logos.
Nobody knew then the timing of the movie’s release would be so ironic -- or profound, depending on how you look at it -- since Payton announced Tuesday he is stepping away from coaching.
James said Payton got emotional when they discussed how special that season as an assistant coach with the Liberty Christian Warriors was to him. How he was able to turn a negative into a positive by getting a rare chance to spend such quality time with his kids, who were living with their mom in the Dallas area.
And sure enough, Payton again mentioned the opportunity to "see my kids more" when he decided to step away.
The movie definitely takes some liberties with the true story -- aiming for both the comedy that Sandler and James are known for, as well as aiming for the heart of a family movie where kids often steal the scenes.
Sandler’s wife, Jackie (Titone’s sister), plays Payton’s ex-wife, Beth. And James tried his best to master Payton’s mannerisms and accent -- though he said Payton’s accent was “all over the map” after he was born in California, grew up in the Philadelphia and Chicago areas and coached all across the country.
Payton coached up James a few times and even joined him on set for a cameo appearance in the movie, which was filmed in New Orleans.
“Kevin would come to me, ‘Would he stand like this? Would he say this? Do this?’” Titone said. “I think every single scene Kevin’s wearing a visor.”
As for the unlikely casting of James, who is known mostly for his comedic side and isn’t exactly a Payton doppelganger, Payton told ESPN last year, “Listen, I'm at that age where I don't really care.”
James, however, joked to Eisen that it may have actually led to Payton’s decision to step away.
“Think of that, that’s probably the greatest news; that you hear somebody’s making a movie about your life,” James said. “And he says, ‘Who’s playing me? Is it Matt Damon or [Leonardo] DiCaprio?’ And you go, ‘Hold on, no, no, it’s none of those guys. It’s Kevin James.’
“And then you just kind of go, ‘OK, I gotta rethink my life.’”
Titone insisted, though, that James was exactly the person he had in mind the entire time he and Blum were writing the script.
“Have you ever seen Kevin do drama? He’s known for being hilarious, but I’m telling ya, the guy is a fantastic actor. … And it wasn’t just a sports movie or a comedy, it actually had a lot of heart,” Titone said. “So I was like, ‘Alright, let’s write it for Kevin James. He’s gonna say no. But we’ll write it for him. And once he says no, we’ll go to No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and we’ll see where we land.’ This guy said yes, and I couldn’t believe it.”
The movie also stars actor Taylor Lautner as Connor’s high school coach -- another easy casting decision since Lautner has been friends with the Payton family for years after being invited to Saints games while filming the final two “Twilight” movies in nearby Baton Rouge. Meghan actually first met Titone when she and her dad were visiting Lautner on a movie set.
And naturally, since the movie is a Happy Madison production, it includes appearances from familiar comic actors like Rob Schneider and James’ brother, Gary Valentine.
“It was just what I was looking to do: a fun family sports movie that tells a great story,” James said via Netflix. “It's not just goofy comedy, but it's family and exciting and emotional.”